How Good Content Can Avert Tragedy



“(Theodore) Dreiser in some ways, some of the time, is one of the worst writers who ever lived. An American Tragedy, for instance, is an endless  book with terrible sentences like ‘He found her extremely intellectually interesting.'”

John Gardner, quoted in The Writer’s Chapbook, ed. George Plimpton

For all the times John Gardner’s acerbic proto-snark bothered me in college, it was nice to have some validation that I was not out of my mind when I found Theodore Dreiser’s writing to be horrible.

I clawed through An American Tragedy in an elective 20th Century American Lit course in my final semester, mind fully blown that such a poor stylist was still required reading. I looked quickly through Sister Carrie and found the same shit. He wasn’t funny! He wasn’t clever! Reading his clodhopper sentences felt nauseously like riding in the backseat with a student driver at the wheel.

Nothing like cruising through say, The Great Gatsby in the same class.

Hey, let’s see what John Gardner has to say about that! 

“Fitzgerald is a good example–a fine stylist. But he never quite got to the heart of things.”

I’m not going to touch the substance of this, the thing about the heart of things, but those are some fighting words. Granted, Gardner was the dean of haters  in American letters so on some level it’s just part of his schtick to be such a bastard. Like those restaurants where they’re famous for being mean to patrons–which, like Gardner, are trading more on the attitude than the quality of what they’re serving.

Anyway, I appreciate this for drawing the line between content and style in any writing, especially having eventually seen that I was not “getting” Dreiser at the time, not seeing that he was saying important and true things. (I think Fitzgerald was too, but whatever). And this ends up being Gardner’s point:

 “What (Dreiser) does morally, that is to say what he does in terms of analysis of character and honest statement about the way the world is, is very good.”

So I’m only mentioning this here because this content/style tension is in all kinds of writing. You can always have one without the other. Ideally you get both but if you have to pick one you pick content. Otherwise the writer has had a little fun, but ultimately has wasted everyone’s time.